revisiting two recent answers (and a better answer about writing samples edited by others)

A few weeks ago, I answered a letter from someone asking whether they could submit writing samples that had been edited by people other than them, or whether it needed to be work untouched by others (#3 at the link). I said that it needed to be a piece that no one else had edited, or that they should note it if that wasn’t the case.

I want to correct that, because my answer was apparently wrong for a lot of fields (maybe even for most fields), which I now know thanks to commenters calling that out.

I took norms from my professional background and incorrectly applied them across the board — and, frankly, dug in my heels for a while when people told me that I was wrong. I’m grateful that people corrected me.

I don’t want the incorrect advice standing out there for people to follow, so I’m adding in a link from that post to this one. And I wanted to correct it loudly with its own post too, so that anyone who read the first post isn’t taking bad advice.

For the record: The general consensus was that as long as a writing sample hasn’t been heavily edited, it’s fine and normal to submit something that’s been edited by someone else (and that if it’s been heavily edited, it shouldn’t be submitted).

While I’m revisiting past answers, I also want to note that I know some people questioned whether I was too easy on the guy who racked up $20,000 in personal debt on his company credit card. I want to be really clear that I in no way think what he did was acceptable. But I was pretty sure that letter had the potential to become a really intense pile-on, and I didn’t want that. I didn’t want it because (a) I want people who have made bad decisions to continue writing in, and eviscerating them isn’t conducive to that and (b) I thought (maybe incorrectly, who knows) that he already understood he’d done something really wrong and that berating him would add to an already bad situation. Somehow that ended up reading to some people as treating it lightly, and that very much wasn’t what I intended. If I miscommunicated that, though, it’s a fair thing to call me out on.

{ 113 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Could be anyone

    Alison-
    This post is a big reason why this blog is so well received. Too many people are not willing to acknowledge their own shortcomings/mistakes. And your responses are generally well thought out and balanced.
    As for the credit card issue I thought your response was appropriate for the reasons you outlined.

    Reply
    1. CNW

      I wholeheartedly agree. This is why I am a daily reader and recommend you to everyone that I know. You’re amazing!

      Reply
    2. Felix

      Agreed! Alison is such a level headed person/writer. I love this blog because She is an engaging, respectful and professional person. This post is a case in point.

      Reply
    3. Honeybee

      Yes, I’ve always thought the same thing. I love that Alison trusts the judgment of her commenters in different fields and with different levels of experience, and actually invites commenters to answer questions and adjusts her advice based on that feedback. I mean, she’s a wizard at giving advice herself, but this is just the delicious cherry on top.

      Reply
    4. thanks Alison!

      I’m one of the people who commented with my polite disagreement about the editing thing, and kudos to you for not only conceding some ground in the original comments thread, but for putting up this new post about it. Definitely going above and beyond, and it just reinforces my attachment to AAM.

      And I liked the gentle, nonjudgmental handling of the OP who had run up debt on the company card. And the update shows that the post and comments helped the OP! Good stuff.

      Reply
  2. Apollo Warbucks

    For the guy who racked up his credit card, I think he knew it was wrong and no one in the comments supported his actions. People make mistakes and he was looking for a way to face up to the problem, sometimes a softer approach is the best way to get a good outcome.

    Reply
    1. Green

      I think he knew it was wrong but was still trying to rationalize/excuse it, and realized that wasn’t helpful based on the comments. So Allison being kind and the grouchy comments both served a useful purpose.

      The only place I think there was errant initial advice was (and thank goodness it worked out for OP!) the fact that seeking legal advice to determine the potential consequences would be a good step for most circumstances where someone may have criminal liability.

      Reply
      1. Apollo Warbucks

        I’d guess that the rationalisation and explaining is because the OP is trying. To reconcile being a good decent person most of the time, with having done something bad combined with the desire to not let one poor choice of action define his charater.

        Reply
      2. Anna

        I think people conflate rationalizing with trying to explain what brought them to that point. If the OP hadn’t given some background, all we’d have is someone saying they did this thing with no context. If I say I racked up thousands of dollars in debt because I thought I was being told I needed to, that isn’t rationalizing, that’s letting you know where my head was.

        Reply
        1. Green

          Eh, there was definitely originally a suggestion mixed in that his boss was partially at fault for explaining that it was a charge card and suggesting that the company only found out if it wasn’t paid off monthly (and OP subsequently abandoned that, and in the update OP acknowledged that when he talked to his bosses he gave no excuses or explanations, because a number of commenters said that the explanation was not persuasive/effective and came off as a weak “excuse”).

          Reply
    2. Juli G.

      It’s interesting – I didn’t think she needed to lay it on thick and I think since he knew he screwed up some sympathy was in order but I did think that Allison wasn’t being realistic about how likely it was he would be fired.

      Of course, he WASN’T fired so she made the right call. :)

      Reply
      1. TootsNYC

        Well, he wasn’t fired YET, the last we heard.
        It was all still in progress–but the best was that he was in a better frame to face the consequences, even if they did eventually result in his losing his job.

        Reply
    3. Cafe au Lait

      While being mean is certainly fun (who hasn’t enjoyed a snappy comeback to the office jerk), there is always a place for kindness.

      It boils down to this: how would you want to be treated if you majorly screwed up? Called to the carpet or treated kindly?

      Reply
      1. Adam

        Agreed. In my experience if you’re dealing with a reasonably well-adjusted person, they usually already know if they made a big mistake if it would fall under commonsense rules (i.e. I shouldn’t use my company credit card willy nilly), but everyone has lapses of good judgement. How you respond to your blunder is “usually” much more important than the blunder itself.

        Reply
      2. SystemsLady

        It isn’t like OP came in here saying “Wow, it’s so wrong that I can’t use my card for personal expenses and I could get in trouble for it! Tell me I’m right and that my employer can’t fire me!”

        AAM is rightfully somewhat harsh on those OPs.

        This OP, however, largely owned up to their mistake, wanted to know what they were up against and asked for advice on how to make things better. There’s no reason – as a third party neutral observer, to be clear – to be harsh on people who already know they messed up and are in a mindset of trying to make things right. It will only distract them from the steps they need to take to dig themselves out of the gigantic hole they’re in.

        Reply
    4. T swizzle

      I agree, I also think if Alison was to be tough on him it would definitely fall under “kicking someone when he’s down” which often doesn’t turn out well.

      Reply
  3. A good old canuck

    This is one of the reasons that I love your site. You are open to feedback and acknowledging the perspective of fellow commentors. You also respect the feedback that commentors provide.

    Reply
  4. Ask a Manager Post author

    To be totally transparent, there’s also a whole thing here about the impact that running a reasonably well-received advice column can have on a person’s confidence in her own opinions over time, and how that isn’t always a good thing. In this case, I think it made me sloppy. I’d be naive to think that it’s the only case, so I’m going to redouble my efforts to ensure that I don’t get cavalier about feeling certain that I’m right (which can be obnoxious anyway), or being sure that my experience will always translate to other fields in every context, etc.

    I think I used to be better about caveating things, and I may have gotten away from that more than I should. The upside to messing up is that it’s getting me thinking about this.

    Reply
    1. Amy Farrah Fowler

      And the other upside is that we get to see in practice something that we talk about all the time: That people who are secure in themselves are willing to admit when they’ve made a mistake or don’t know something. People who are insecure usually try to cover it up. Thanks Alison, for setting a good example of how to own up when you’ve made an error. We all make them from time to time and it’s great to see people take responsibility for things. :-)

      Reply
      1. Tomato Frog

        I’ve thought about this a lot lately. In the past year, I’ve gone back to two of my bosses who incorrectly corrected me on something. Both times I was polite — “Actually, our style guide tells us not to do that,” and, “I can’t find any definition that supports that usage. Can you point me to one?” So I wasn’t being a jerk. In each case, they didn’t even acknowledge the possibility that I was right. And in each case, my respect for them dropped. On the other hand, my previous boss was always willing to listen when we pointed out she was mistaken or possibly mistaken about something, and as a result I always felt great confidence in her judgment. I took her for granted at the time because I thought that was how adults behaved.

        It’s a terrible but not uncommon mistake to think that respect has to be built on being right or knowing everything. You WILL be wrong sometimes, so that’s building a house on the sand.

        Reply
        1. TootsNYC

          This is so good for me to hear.

          Because you would work for me, specifically. And I have sometimes been wrong, and I try to always acknowledge it. I say to my team, “You are right–I am wrong.” I say, “Staffer A pointed out that I’ve been doing this wrong–so don’t do it that way anymore, sorry!” And even, literally (last week): “Learn from my fail. Here’s what I did wrong.”

          And I worry that I will not have the respect of my subordinates. That they’ll think, “yeesh, I could do her job better than she does! I wouldn’t make that mistake!”

          It’s heartening to think that perhaps they will respect me for my honesty, and my willingness to admit when I’m wrong, and my eagerness to give them credit for their ability and skill. And even for their willingness to correct me.

          Reply
    2. puddin

      In the context of just receiving some work instructions that were so ‘not right’, this is so mind blowing I have tears in my eyes. Your reflection and honesty is as refreshing as it is rare in my management world.

      THANK YOU

      Reply
    3. Sonya Mann

      I really respect your willingness to admit mistakes and correct yourself, and your desire to improve going forward. It shows strength of character and good judgment. Which is why we all come to you!

      Reply
    4. neverjaunty

      I can’t tell you how impressive this is. There are blogs I’ve abandoned because the people writing them started to, as the saying goes, believe their own press releases, and lost the ability to admit they might be wrong, or even to gracefully consider the possibility that they might be wrong. It’s just one of those things that keeps AAM such an awesome resource.

      Reply
      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Thank you, I really appreciate that.

        I wish there was an advice column for advice columnists, because I really do think there’s a whole set of weird issues that come with doing it and that can be tough to navigate. Possible topics could include how not to become a blowhard and how to turn off your advice brain when you’re with your spouse. I would read the crap out of that.

        Reply
          1. inkstainedpages

            My husband sometimes says to me, “I know you’re a manager, but you’re not MY manager!” when I try to give him unsolicited advice. :)

            Reply
        1. Beancounter in Texas

          My hubby & I used to work together and he’s a workaholic, so nights & weekends, he’d be talking about this or that project and what we need to do the next day on it. When I could get a word in I’d say, “That’s great, Mr. Snow. Can I have Jon back now? It’s Friday night and I’m on a date with him.”

          Reply
    5. TootsNYC

      The upside to messing up is that it’s getting me thinking about this.

      Problems are good!
      That was the mantra our Continuous Improvemet person always chanted.

      Reply
  5. KimmieSue

    I am impressed with your humility. Like the others, this post is one of the reasons I’m a daily reader after many years. Bravo to you.

    Reply
  6. Tanith

    So….what is the correct advice about submitting writing samples that have been edited by others? You didn’t elucidate the answer in this post. Just that it’s okay in some/most fields? Should we just go read the comments on the previous post?

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Ha, that would help, wouldn’t it?

      There’s a good and nuanced discussion in the comment thread that starts here and the one that starts here.

      The general consensus was that as long as it hasn’t been heavily edited, it’s fine and normal to submit something that’s been edited by someone else (and that if it’s been heavily edited, it shouldn’t be submitted).

      (I’ve added that into the post above too.)

      Reply
    2. KT

      I would say the normal course of editing is fine and even expected.

      But if your piece was edited to the point where whole sections were rewritten and it no longer looks like your original, it cannot be submitted.

      Reply
      1. A Writer

        I’d agree with that. The vast majority of professional writing goes through an editing process but that doesn’t mean your clips aren’t yours after your editor’s worked over them (usually).

        Reply
  7. Jerzy

    I don’t think you were “easy” on the guy who racked up personal debt on a company credit card. I think that it came across as a professional and compassionate response to someone who was owning what he did. If he wasn’t interested in taking responsibility and fixing his mistake, he wouldn’t have written in the first place. I think making him feel bad would have a been a waste of time, and is one of my biggest gripes in the professional world.

    Yes, someone responsible for a mistake of the $20k magnitude needs it made clear that it is unacceptable and will not be tolerated, BUT spending time telling him all the ways he’s wrong doesn’t address his problem. Your advice did. Continuing to blame and point fingers doesn’t solve problems. Let’s figure out how to solve it first and then have a discussion of how we got there second. Otherwise, we’ll all end up burning to death as we decide who’s to blame for the fire.

    Reply
    1. Beancounter in Texas

      +1,000

      In a mad rush to get everything done on an especially busy month, I once forgot to remit sales and use taxes for the month, and didn’t catch it until two months later, just after I had been promoted! Well, those who have been audited by the Texas State Comptroller’s office for sales and use tax have been known to prefer an IRS audit any day of the week, and twice on Sunday, so I owned the mistake up to my boss and the State Comptroller. The late penalty was about $3,000. My boss was cool as a cucumber.

      The next day, he came into my office and asked, “How do you feel when you get a speeding ticket?”
      I told him, “Pretty crummy.”
      “I feel pretty crummy right now too. How do you feel right now?”
      “Like pond scum.”
      “I thought so. Are you going to do this again?”
      “No! I’ve set up reminders and it’s on my calendar in big bold red letters.”
      “Okay then.”

      Just the fact that he demonstrated how disappointed he was in me was enough to make me crumble. But he never mentioned it again. Ever. The company was full of gossips and I never heard a word about it from anyone else (and they had the nerve to rub mistakes in people’s faces). I have never paid any government agency late since then. He was the best boss I’ve ever had.

      Reply
  8. Cambridge Comma

    I think the question about the LW with the company credit card was sensitively handled. I’m sure we all know people who have taken unnecessarily drastic actions when they believed themselves to be in a situation they couldn’t get out of. I didn’t find that Alison played down the seriousness of what the guy had done but her focus was on getting out of the situation, and rightly so. People write for advice*, not castigation.

    *Except the “computer science” person.

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      There was an implied trust there.
      “I trust you to handle this question as a professional. I trust you to give me advice that I can actually use to move forward.”
      How many of us have a person in our lives that would handle a difficult question like that? I did not for years and years. I am thinking that most people here could say that.

      Alison, you did not breach that implied trust. You did not fail that person.

      I saw something where I worked and I saw the same thing happen to a friend in his profession. Once people see that you can handle questions, they bring you HARDER* questions. It’s a compliment. They think you are up for the challenge. They think you have something to offer that is worth listening to. I would remind myself of this as I banged my head against the wall. Many times I wanted to say, “Don’t tell me these things.” And, yet, some how we would talk it though and find some type of next step or if we were lucky we’d find an actual answer.

      *Harder does not necessarily mean one cannot figure it out, harder can mean that the situation is just difficult to listen to- discouraging, heartbreaking, etc.

      In short, the more of these harder questions you answer, the more you can expect to be asked harder questions. It starts with willingness. The LW’s willingness to ask for help and your willingness to offer help.

      Reply
  9. Turtle Candle

    I think, too, a lot of the time grumpiness about how “lightly” someone got off is less about that person’s situation per se and more about comparing it with other letter writers. (And, in turn, it may be less how heavily or lightly you treat them, Alison, and more how heavily or lightly the community treats them.) I tend to think that it’s valuable to err on the side of being generous to all letter writers, simply for the sake of kindness (well, and because if people think they’ll be clobbered, they’re unlikely to write in).

    But sometimes I think the complaint is less “you should have beat up on this guy” and more “why is this person who made their company potentially liable for $20,000 getting hugs and hopes-for-the-best in the comments when last week we came down like a ton of bricks on someone for [whatever: putting kids on their resume, trying to play a “fun” team-building exercise, coming in late, thinking it’s illegal to be told they have to wear pink on Wednedays, eating celery or popcorn at their desk, etc.].” It’s the contrast, I think, that sometimes gets backs up.

    And I think sometimes the reason for the discrepancy in the comments is that it’s easy for most of us to imagine being super annoyed by the team-building exercise or the kids on the resume or the crunching celery, but most of us have no real concept of what it would be like to be the employer who issued the credit card (or whatever). We can be more magnanimous about the credit card, because it’s not something most of us will ever have to deal with, but the “aaaaargh nooooooo” is much more personal and visceral with what otherwise would appear to be smaller ‘offenses.’

    I guess, in other words, we are already in bitch-eating-crackers mode with celery crunchers and swanning-in-late and team-building exercises, but things that are actually bigger in terms of long-term consequences are ‘new,’ and there’s no grudge there.

    Reply
    1. Jerzy

      In some ways it’s easier to find kindness for people who have messed up so bad it could really potentially destroy their entire career and future livelihood. Someone eating celery noisily at their desk isn’t going to get them fired, so it’s easy to throw grenades, since we know they’re really only water balloons anyway.

      Reply
      1. Turtle Candle

        Yeah, that’s absolutely true. It’s easier to be kind when you’ve got some amount of “oh, you’re in deep shit, son” feeling ringing around in the back of your head.

        Reply
      2. SystemsLady

        Yeah, this.

        In addition, many of the letters aren’t from the “offending” employee and a good portion that are come in trying to defend themselves, not looking for ways to correct a mistake they made.

        Reply
    2. AnonymousaurusRex

      I’m kind of feeling bad about my semi-addiction to late afternoon celery sticks now… Sorry office mates! I’ll try to keep it under control!

      Reply
      1. Turtle Candle

        Well, if recent threads are any indication, there is no perfectly inoffensive snack! (I, personally, am not at all bothered by crunchy foods, or slurping, or banana aroma–but even though I love garlic, persistent garlicky odors drive me nuts.) So I think it’s more a matter of finding out what bothers your coworkers–it might not be celery sticks at all.

        Reply
      2. misspiggy

        If you’re noticing colleagues wearing earphones all the time, it may be time to face your celery habit head on…

        Reply
    3. Not So NewReader

      I think the person’s attitude is key. If there is a genuine sense of “hey, I want to fix this, but I don’t understand how”, it’s easier to go a little lighter.

      But if someone writes in with the attitude, “I am right and the 27 people around me saying something else are wrong!” You kind of have to deal with the attitude before you deal with the actual problem. In this example it could be as simple as saying “Twenty seven people disagree with you? Did you even ask they WHY?” It could be me, but you kind of have to match the level a LW is using. Maybe come in a little below it, but not a lot below it. But as always, it has to be a thinking person’s response, even if the intent is to say, “hey, slow down a minute and think this through. Here’s why: _______.”

      Reply
  10. Sans

    I think the writing one was the only answer of yours I ever totally disagreed with! Thanks for posting this — it makes this blog even more credible and valuable.

    Reply
  11. Turanga Leela

    I’m going back now to read the comments on the post about writing samples. Most of the hiring I’ve done is for lawyers, and by far the most useful writing samples IMHO have been brief memos; it gives me a sense of the person’s own logic and writing style. Published law review articles are so heavily edited that it can be hard to gauge the applicant’s writing ability.

    I tend to fall on the side of Alison’s original post—I’d rather get something that hasn’t been edited by anyone else. It sounds like that’s not normal in journalism, but am I expecting something unusual for law? Can other lawyers weigh in?

    Reply
    1. Cat

      I’ve struggled with this when hiring lawyers. I had someone give me a SCOTUS amicus brief which, while impressive, it was hard for me to believe it hadn’t been edited, who knows how much, by the senior lawyers at the firm. And of course, client confidentiality concerns mean you can’t use non-final drafts of pleadings. So I agree, memos tend to be the most useful and is usually what I see from entry-level or near entry-level candidates.

      I think senior candidates, who are nonetheless not senior enough to be working alone on cases, are kind of in a bind though. They might not have written internal memos recently, and might not have anything that isn’t a client memo (that has either been edited or is so privileged as to be useless once redacted) or a pleading that other people have edited. And not having an unedited writing sample says nothing about the quality of your writing – lawyers just do edit things in my experience. So I’m not sure what’s best there and, honestly, I’m not sure what I’d use as a writing sample if I had to look for a job in the near future.

      Reply
      1. Cat

        Also, even though I have no intention of looking for a job in the near future, I have spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about this because, as a lawyer, I’m also neurotic and prone to obsessing over details.

        Reply
    2. Buffay the Vampire Layer

      I always use file stamped pleadings as my writing samples. I’ve been in small enough firms and in government, so it’s nearly entirely my work anyway, so I can see how someone in BigLaw wouldn’t be able to do the same thing.

      What kind of internal memo wouldn’t be privileged? I’m trying to think of something and really failing. That’s why I only use filed briefs – I’m way too concerned about the optics of sending an internal draft, even if substantively there’s no a-c privilege violation.

      Reply
      1. Cat

        The ones I’ve seen people use are of the “here’s an explanation of this problem/area of law” type with the client information and specifics redacted. Like, one of our summers just asked if he could use a memo on different standards of review for certain regulated contracts, which I sad was fine as long as all client names were taken out.

        Reply
      2. Turanga Leela

        Pretty much what Cat said. For example, I might get a memo about whether a landlord being sued for housing discrimination could raise certain defenses, and the memo will be framed in general terms and won’t identify the defendant. (Or sometimes it will, and then I’ll wonder if the applicant got permission to send me an unredacted memo.)

        We get a lot of pleadings as writing samples, too, and they’re more helpful than I would have thought before I started doing this. There’s a huge difference between a well-written complaint and a poorly-written one.

        Reply
    3. sunny-dee

      A lot of fields — journalism being one — tend to allow editing very frequently. The most common issue is length — like, I had stories that were slated for a Sunday feature of 1200 words and got bumped to Monday human interest at 700 words. The content was still mine, but it was edited for length. Or in a lot of technical fields, there is peer review where the edits may be done by the writer, but the rewrites themselves, and sometimes the content of those rewrites, it suggested by the reviewer. Same is true for freelance work, design work, web copy….

      On the flip side, for most places, some kind of editing or review will be part of the process. The ability to incorporate feedback effectively is just as important as writing a decent first draft.

      The exception to this, as Alison notes, is really extensive rewriting done by someone else. It’s one thing for someone to say “tighten up the intro” — it’s something else for someone to say “screw it” and rewrite X number of words themselves because you didn’t get it right. That’s out of bounds for using as one of your writing samples.

      Reply
    4. neverjaunty

      Yes, this is unusual for law. The degree of editing may be slight, but it would be very rare to get something that hasn’t been reviewed and at least lightly edited by a more senior attorney or by other team members. Also, keep in mind that in law, “original writing” and “not edited” may be far from the same thing. Your candidate could pull together a memo that cut and pastes writing from other people’s previous memos, and tell you with a straight face that their writing wasn’t edited after they wrote it.

      And what Buffay said about privilege and work product; it’s going to be rare for there to be a memo that doesn’t in someway reveal client information or work product. I would never submit anything other than a file-stamped document that’s been submitted to a court and is therefore ‘out there’.

      I think you’re better off just asking the candidates questions about the writing sample, how they went about preparing it, how much editing was done, etc.

      Reply
      1. Turanga Leela

        I mean, I don’t think anyone here is advocating plagiarizing your writing sample. If a candidate cuts and pastes a memo and submits it as her own work, she has deeper problems than editing.

        Reply
        1. neverjaunty

          Sure. I just mean that it’s not thought of at all as weird to re-use others’ writings or previous work in a lot of legal writing.

          Reply
          1. Cat

            Yeah, that is another weirdness. Presumably having. say, the boilerplate standard for deciding summary judgment in your motion doesn’t disqualify it (nobody expects you to come up with a novel way of saying there’s no genuine issue of material fact), but I think there are probably some blurry lines there.

            Reply
    5. Sophia in the DMV

      While on the academic side, heavily edited and revised writing samples (articles that are published in peer reviewed journals) is what’s preferred

      Reply
      1. Honeybee

        I was going to say this. In fact, the best writing sample may be one that’s not even sole-authored, at least in the sciences and experimental social sciences.

        Reply
    6. RG

      That’s an interesting question. I’m a patent agent, but a junior one – my stuff has usually been reviewed by a supervising attorney, possibly a partner, and depending on the matter, inventor(s) and/or in-house counsel. I’d like to think that my work is so great that there’s very little editing, but obviously that’s not always true.

      Reply
    7. Gareth Keenan Investigates

      I’ve been taught (and have therefore assumed) that lawyers are expected to be transparent about how edited their writing samples are. I don’t typically say anything if I’m submitting a brief that was entirely mine (with maybe one peer review that caught a couple of typos) but anything beyond that I’ll just admit to in a brief statement, “this is a brief I drafted for such and such a purpose, the work is largely mine but was edited by a supervising attorney prior to submission” or something along those lines. I’ve also sent in redacted versions of rough drafts and just stated that I’m submitting unedited drafts rather than a final product.

      Reply
  12. Erin

    Thanks for the update and your tactfulness. I was surprised by and questioned the writing sample one, so thanks for clarifying.

    But to your credit, I had said, I’ve never had a piece published that wasn’t at least somewhat edited, and since I left that comment, I have. :)

    I agree with your initial approach to the other letter writer, though. I do believe he conveyed that he understood the gravity of the situation and you responded accordingly.

    Reply
  13. Amber Rose

    Yeah, I also don’t think you were going easy on the dude with the debt. Yelling at him/insulting him wouldn’t have solved his problem and would have been rather pointless; it isn’t your money he spent. I think you did a decent job of conveying the severity of the matter while still being helpful.

    And on a personal note, sometimes people screw up, and still deserve compassion. It was possible that jail was in the cards for that guy, but I think the people saying they hoped he’d end up there were just being vindictive in a self satisfying way. Sentencing by way of the court of public opinion and mob mentality rather than what was just and appropriate. :/

    Reply
    1. anon for this

      Not too long ago, my husband screwed up, screwed up bad and was facing jail time (not for harm to another person). He knew he screwed up, it was a horrible time in our marriage. I was incredibly grateful for the compassion we received during the 6 months of litigation. Thanks to a very observant lawyer and a policeman not following procedure, his case was acquitted. We were gracious and humbled beyond belief. A family member of his made a comment that “he should have went to jail, he didn’t deserve to ‘get off’”. It was very hurtful, to this day.

      Reply
      1. Three Thousand

        I think the operative feeling is “if that had been me, I would have been fired/when that was me, I got fired.” It makes us feel personally affronted when we feel someone is arbitrarily being treated better than we are or that we would be treated worse in the same situation, and we might be angry at being expected to be polite or sympathetic in the face of this.

        Reply
      2. Anna

        I think it’s a weird thing about our culture that any infraction is frequently met with this desire to see the worst possible outcome for the person in the wrong. One of the things our justice system, and hopefully society, should remember is that we have discretion for a reason and grace is often more effective than being punitive.

        Reply
        1. peanut butter kisses

          Years ago, I took a criminal justice class and one of the things that I still remember from it is that the prison/jail system can serve one or all three of these things – punishment, retribution, or rehabilitation. I think the writer who was in financial trouble was already being punished by his conscience and circumstances. We weren’t the people who got to decide about retribution so the only thing AAM readers could help with was the rehabilitation. And I think that is how it mostly went with the comments that day, giving him a hand to make sure it didn’t happen again and how to get him to solve it in a constructive way.

          Reply
      3. Engineer Girl

        Many times people make comments like this because they’ve been beat up for lesser offenses. They see inequity in it. The big problem is that you can’t see the heart so can’t really determine “justice”.

        Reply
  14. Writing sample question asker

    Hi all! I’m the person who submitted the question about writing samples. I did respond in a comment on the original post saying that I ended up submitting 100% unedited drafts (I applied for that particular job before the question was posted), but I feel much better now about submitting work that has been edited. I work in higher education, so when I was originally Googling for an answer to my question, I wasn’t sure if that mattered compared to journalism or what have you. It sounds like it doesn’t, as long as the bosses who edit my pieces (VPs of Marketing and PR) don’t edit too much.

    I mentioned that a big reason I wanted to submit final versions of the pieces instead of drafts was because I prefer the professional look of PDFs to Word docs — I got several responses suggesting I convert the Word docs to PDFs. It’s a good idea and something I’ll probably do in the future, though I probably wasn’t very clear that I also prefer the PDF final versions of my pieces because they’re in a magazine layout with photos and colors and such, which makes it look more professional than plain type, even if that plain type is in PDF form.

    Thanks to all who responded, and thanks to Alison for the original post and her new response here. The discussion was very interesting!

    Reply
    1. sunny-dee

      This is very much the reason I use(d) final pieces in my portfolio — they look so much nicer!

      If there were, like, moderate level edits on the piece, you may also mention that you had a collaborator. It’s still at least partly your work, even if other people contributed. (Obviously, this is for really minor contributions.)

      Reply
    2. TootsNYC

      Also, the fact that an editor thought your writing was good enough to publish is an endorsement. Sure, the editor edited it–but if it had been bad, it might not have been published at all. Or it would have been a joint byline. Or it might have been given a tagline (at the end) instead of a byline. Or the tagline might have been “reported by” or “also reported by.” Or no credit at all.

      See that de-escalating credit? In print magazines, editors have ways to telegraphing to people how much credit the original author deserves.

      For someone else, I’d suggest a notation of some sort that says, “This piece was trimmed for length” or “I’m proud of this one because the editing was pretty minimal.”

      Reply
  15. K.J.

    VERY well done Alison. I’m very impressed with this post, and it is a reflection of the high quality of this blog.

    In the spirit of admitting to or mistakes, I apologize for adding an extra “L” to you name the other day…sorry!

    Reply
  16. NavyLT

    Yeah, if someone already knows they’ve screwed up, it does zero good to further berate them for it. What do you gain? They’re already beating themselves up, and your focus should be on containing the consequences. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and a place for chewing people out (time: when they don’t get why they’re wrong; place: in private), but if you beat people up over mistakes or bad decisions, the only thing that’s going to happen is that they’re going to work harder at hiding what they’ve done until things really blow up.

    Reply
    1. TootsNYC

      Or if they DON’T know they screwed up, or how serious the screw-up is, if you berate them, they won’t actually listen to you, and they may never learn how serious it is.

      Reply
  17. Laurel Gray

    I too don’t think your answer went easy on the credit card debt guy. I actually don’t really think the comments did either. I think people were pretty respectfully disagreeing with one another and with the OP’s actions and rationale. My biggest gripe about that letter is that I felt the update was rather incomplete. Reminds me of a cliffhanger season finale on TV. What happened after the boss talked to the finance team? Has the OP been paying the debt down since coming clean? And most important: WHAT HAPPENED TO THE GIRLFRIEND?!?!?!?!

    Reply
  18. TootsNYC

    Alison, I love the way you are able to tell someone that they’re wrong without trashing them. You manage to come across as being their ally even when you’re telling them how

    It’s advice that people will listen to. If you attack people, or criticize them, you will turn off their ears.

    In fact, in church this Sunday, the Old Testament reading was from Proverbs 9:

    He who corrects a scoffer gets dishonor for himself, And he who reproves a wicked man gets insults for himself. Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you, Reprove a wise man and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man and he will be still wiser, Teach a righteous man and he will increase his learning…

    It really set me thinking. I’ve seen so often that berating people or scolding them simply makes them defensive, and then they’re so busy defending themselves, they don’t learn anything!

    I’ve even said to people who worked for me, “I’m concerned that you’re so defensive. I don’t bring you corrections in order to attack you–you aren’t in trouble. I tried to take great pains to let you know that. But I need you to change your mindset, because when you get defensive, I worry that you aren’t being mentally open to the improvement that I am trying to encourage in you.”

    I think that you treat people as being wise enough to learn from the info you give them.

    Reply
    1. Not So NewReader

      Generally, people figure out what we think of them. And they tend to live up to OR down to our opinions of them- almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      Reply
  19. BobbyTwin

    Years ago I submitted a writing sample for a job app that my boss had edited. I was horrified to find out afterwards that she had introduced two grammatical errors. Lesson learned, triple check it before you add it to your job app.

    Reply
  20. Sinjin

    Earlier today I recommended this blog to someone. Last night I recommended it to someone else. Last week I recommend it to two other people. There is never a week that goes by that I don’t recommend this blog to someone. It’s so well done, it’s taught me so much, and I have benefitted immeasurably from it. I had posted a comment on the writing sample post, and I really appreciate you circling back about it, Alison. Nicely done!

    Reply
  21. Jillyan

    It’s always good to have another set of eyes read things. Once I submitted a cover letter for a job and I was called for an interview. The job required a high attention to detail. The last question she asked me was why the word ‘the’ was misspelled on my cover letter. I just stared at her awkwardly and then apologized but the point is if I had another set of eyes, I could have avoided that.

    Reply
  22. LeRainDrop

    Alison, have you received another update from “Kevin OP” about what happened in the weeks after his July 13th meeting with HR and upper management? Last he commented, he had two weeks to pay back the $20,000 in full.

    Reply
      1. Laurel Gray

        Alison if you do, can you please do a 2nd update and give him a heads up so he can post and answer questions. If there was ever a letter on this site where we needed the OP present in the comments, it was that one!

        Reply
  23. Fruitfly

    I also think the “responding too softly” outcry may arise because AAM might have been a bit “too strict” on some OPs that did mistakes that are less severe than the $20,000 debt OP and who are also acknowledging their wrong without being condescending or uptight.

    But as always, I believe AAM did a good job of this blog by providing a lot of answers and having comment discussions to explore differing points of view.

    Reply
  24. Anonsie

    Ooh ooh I have an add-on to the writing sample question that I wanted to throw into the initial post. I have a friend who has a side gig editing essays for students, and he charges hefty fees. He says he does a lot of university admissions essays and then a lot of school papers, mostly for college students. I assumed this was pretty light editing and maybe advising (what with him being an academic and all) on meeting prompts, academic writing norms, etc. But recently I had him look at a paper of mine recently assuming he would just give some general feedback, and he just about re-wrote the entire thing. If I didn’t know better, I wouldn’t even be able to tell I’d written any of it. When I was surprised about it he said that’s what he always does. I submitted my original instead, though I did edit some parts based on what he seemed to dislike.

    What do you think the ethics are of having a professional editor do paid work on your school papers that are graded, or for admissions essays? Is is more acceptable if it’s only light editing and directional notes on matching prompts, academic or scientific writing, etc. or does this strike you as never-okay?

    I admit to being more than a little miffed at the idea that there are high school students out there whose parents are paying $1000+ a pop for a professional to essentially write admissions essays to colleges for them, or to redo their graded papers. This seems extremely unethical to me but I wonder also if this is way more common than I ever realized before; he works through a company that contracts out writers to people, and they have absolutely no shortage of clients for him.

    Reply
    1. Cath in Canada

      This just feels wrong to me. Completely wrong. Sure, a little advice (e.g. “I think you’re being too general – you need to get into some specific details, especially in the third section”, or “I recommend double-checking your spelling, and remember to be consistent with your punctuation use”) is just fine, but having someone edit or even rewrite (!!!) work that counts towards a degree or other qualification does indeed seem extremely unethical.

      Reply
    2. MissDisplaced

      Wow, this feels really wrong. Proof reading and suggestions to correct seem more appropriate at this level, not near complete rewrites.

      Reply

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